New Zealand shedding COVID-19 restrictions

·3-min read

Jacinda Ardern has declared it "time to safely turn the page" on New Zealand's COVID-19 restrictions, scrapping all but a handful of remaining rules.

New Zealand, which in 2020 eliminated the virus through the toughest pandemic rules in the world, has now made relaxations closer to Australian or Europe settings.

On Monday, the prime minister announced New Zealand was abandoning its traffic light-styled restriction framework, in place since December.

Mask-wearing will no longer be mandatory in indoor public places, and the last vaccine mandates will be ditched in two weeks under the sweeping changes.

However, the government is sticking by two measures; mask-wearing in health settings, and a seven-day isolation period for people infected with COVID-19.

"Today marks a milestone in our response. Finally, rather than feeling that COVID dictates what happens to us, our lives, and our futures, we take back control," Ms Ardern said.

"With the lowest cases and hospitalisations since February, our population well vaccinated, and expanded access to anti-viral medicines, New Zealand is in a position to move forward.

"We move forward with confidence knowing that we're not going to use those measures in the future."

New Zealand delayed easing restrictions until winter's end due to a major Omicron wave which killed more Kiwis than any other outbreak of the pandemic.

The death toll stands at 1950, growing from about 50 at the start of the year, and 500 four months ago.

The winter Omicron wave coincided with a major influenza outbreak, putting the health system under severe strain.

Both case numbers and the government's key metric - hospitalisations - have dropped sharply in recent weeks, producing Monday's shift.

The changes mean Kiwis no longer have to mask up in retail, public transport and airports, though Ms Ardern said she would still opt to wear a mask on planes.

Also gone are the few remaining vaccine mandates, for workers and inbound travellers.

Tests on arrival in New Zealand are no longer required but simply encouraged.

While the seven-day isolation requirement for cases has remained, household contacts no longer have to join them.

The move was welcomed by business, which had long sought the relaxations.

"After over two years of being at the forefront of COVID-19 rules, alert level changes, low foot traffic, and nonsensical mask rules, retailers across New Zealand will be pleased," Retail NZ chief executive Greg Harford said.

Kiwis were increasingly fed up with the rules, especially mask-wearing, which drew widespread non-compliance, particularly outside Wellington.

Conversely, Greens COVID-19 spokesman Teanau Tuiono queried whether Ms Ardern was "giving up" on public health measures to protect at-risk Kiwis.

Public health experts also attacked the shift.

"The PM is correct about having certainty. Disabled and immunocompromised people can now be 100 per cent certain it is unsafe to go out in public," University of Auckland associate professor Rhys Jones said.

Ms Ardern said she was grateful to New Zealanders for putting up with the pandemic.

"This will be the first summer in three years where there won't be the question of what will and what won't be cancelled because of COVID cases," she said.

"Where our borders are fully reopened and there isn't a fear of being separated or stranded. The summer where we have certainty.

"So today, I say again to everyone, from the bottom of my heart, thank you."